The very first camera Julian Vankim ever held belonged to his grandfather. The camera pre-dated the rush to digital and, quaintly by today’s standards, shot film. The young, Virginia-born son of Vietnamese immigrants took a passing interest in it. As he puts it, “I toyed with it.”
It wasn’t until years later, when Vankim was in high school and took an elective in photography, that he felt the full lure, the full potential of the art form.
“Photography started off as a hobby for me,” he says, noting that most of his early shots were of nature: tree branches, plants, shadows. Eventually, while studying photography at NOVA Community College, he turned his attention to actual human subjects.
First, he captured friends. Then random people he found on the website Model Mayhem, which he calls a “Facebook for models, photographers, and makeup artists” looking to connect. And it’s where he met Andy Hill, a gorgeous, sculpted film historian with whom the artist would work frequently, enveloping him with clusters of floating bubbles or adroitly bathing him in primary colors. If ever a photographer had a muse, Hill was Vankim’s.
Not one to settle for standard-issue portraits, Vankim, whose imagination is perpetually active and seemingly infinite, experimented wildly with his subjects. He’d hurl powder at them while the shutter clicked, he’d bathe them in milk, cover them in glitter, or encase them in abstract paint, courtesy of Carol Kirsch and Brady Neher, makeup artists who helped bring additional flair to Vankim’s early works. He’d project images, frequently mosaics, onto portions of his subjects, and would deploy his talent for lighting, often to subtle, dramatic effect.
His works are phenomenal amalgams of in-camera effects and digital enhancements, showcasing an instinctive understanding of what makes a portrait unique, and what allows a picture to tell a person’s secret story. His works veer from calm and serene to shocking and startling, evoking a response in the viewer no matter the mood. They can be playful or, every so often, disturbing. Mostly, they’re sexy — generally celebrating the male form with style, starkness, and alluring sensuality.
Metro Weekly has a personal connection to Vankim. He’s family here, having worked at the magazine for eight years as a staff photographer. His tenure at Metro Weekly elevated the Nightlife Coverboy section to a whole new realm. And his illustrious cover subjects included Mayor Vincent Gray in 2014, The Task Force’s former executive director Rea Carey, and, in one of his most eye-popping shoots, nightlife impresario Daryl Wilson, serving up a gorgeous cover that bursts with joie de vivre.
Vankim became known at the magazine for his ability to power through mammoth shooting sessions, including an afternoon where he captured 35 individual members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, an evening where the cast of The Sound of Music at the Kennedy Center posed for him in costume while the show was running upstairs (the actors rushed down to his impromptu studio in the Opera House rehearsal room when they were not on stage), and a five-hour shoot at the nightclub Town on its penultimate weekend, where he brilliantly memorialized a cross-section of its owners, managers, bartenders, drag performers, and customers.
One of Vankim’s most enjoyable shoots for the magazine occurred with Clayborne Elder, when the star of Company, returning to Broadway in November, was featured in Passion at Signature Theatre. He charmed the somewhat reluctant actor, who was in costume, to fully bare his chest. Vankim captured the moment in such rapid-fire succession, the 500 photographs that resulted were later stitched together into a makeshift, playful strip-tease YouTube video.
Sadly, Vankim left Metro Weekly four years ago to pursue a career working with animals. “I was at the point where I’d been doing photography for almost a decade,” he says. “I just wanted to try something different and new. And one of the things that I like are animals.” He got a job at the city’s esteemed Friendship Hospital, where he now works as a pharmacy technician. He notes, however, that “I’m not quitting photography.”
A range of his works can presently be seen in an exhibit at the newly reopened DC Center. Entitled “Julian Vankim: Celebrating a Decade of Photography,” it showcases 41 images — several in large format — that are wildly divergent, yet bear the indelible mark of their creator. They are as transfixing in their beauty as they are imaginative and provocative, showcasing Vankim’s innate gift for making the ordinary seem extraordinary.
“With my work, I like to have the attention to details and colors, but also convey some emotion or story,” he says. “One of the things I like about taking pictures of people is that I can convey their personality. I love to emphasize colors and textures because that way people can look at the photo and be like, ‘Oh, does this color mean anything?’ or, ‘I can see every single detail of his beard here.’ A beard can be beautiful to some people.”
The exhibit was originally meant to open in May of 2020, but everyone knows how that summer went down. It was postponed until October 2021 and is running through the end of the year. It’s viewable during Center hours and by private appointment with Vankim.
Vankim is thrilled he was finally able to display his work, and feels that the pandemic interruption may have helped him refine his choices in what to display.
“This is my first time ever,” he says. “So I thought let’s celebrate it. Let’s go ahead and do a collection of my favorite photos from across my career. There’s something from college, something from a year ago, something from Metro Weekly….
“A part of me was okay with the show being delayed because I felt like I wasn’t ready yet,” he continues, “but I also was sad, because I was so hyped up for my first show in May of 2020. I was so ready for people to come and see it. But I’m also very fortunate that [the DC Center’s director] Kimberly Bush still kept me in mind to be the first exhibit for the grand reopening. Seeing my work displayed is very rewarding.”
“Julian Vankim: Celebrating a Decade of Photography” will remain on display at the DC Center, 2000 14th St. NW, Suite 105, in Washington, D.C., through early January 2022. The exhibit is free and open to the public Mondays through Fridays from noon to 6 p.m. and on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and by appointment in the evenings. Private tours with the artist can also be reserved ahead of time by calling the Center. Call 202-682-2245 or visit www.thedccenter.org.
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